Never Say Goodbye: Redeemer Church — UPDATE


5-18-16: Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustments today approved HOW Properties’ application for a variance for 9 residential units in Redeemer & new construction of five townhomes on the adjoining lot off Penn. See plans here. 

(5-15-16: On the near eve of HOW Properties’ ZBA meeting for residential renovations to the old Redeemer Lutheran Church property, a member of Redeemer’s displaced congregation pleads to the community for one last shot.)

Redeemer Church has stood at Midvale & Conrad for well over a hundred years — built in 1909, vacant since 2009. To put it lightly, the last congregation here did not agree with the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s decision to close and sell their church.

Longtime member Judy Gotwald practically led a coup, but ultimately she & the other worshipers were quite dramatically ousted, with the church sold out from under them.

EastFallsLocal REdeemer collage text noah morgan

According to Judy (who has since been ordained by the Evangelical Christian Church of North America — Restoration Movement), they’ve been laying low all this time — waiting to save their church as soon as they felt it was safe from possible vindictive actions from the bishops who, they feel, sealed their fate years ago. Behind the scenes, Judy has been working with other church members and East Falls neighbors on a plan to run a ministry-based Summer day camp from Redeemer, plus a local newspaper as well.

She’s even been in contact with the owner of HOW Properties, Gary Jonas, who gave them until March 2016 to come up with a down payment for sale. With that deadline long passed, he’s now moving ahead with the zoning variances he needs to start construction. Judy asked us to help her get the word out that Redeemer is still an active local church, and still wants to be a part of the community:

I’m grateful that Gary gave us any chance. But I think the people of East Falls have a right to know there might be other options that weren’t publicized earlier… I’d still like to find some way to preserve that community space. It is every bit as precious as McMichael Park

EastFallsLocal proposal redeemer cover page

Judy admits her “Eleventh-Hour” proposal might be too late for the Redeemer property. Still, she’s got her eyes out for other spaces in the neighborhood to continue their ministry here, where they’ve been serving & worshiping more than a century.

Whether Redeemer becomes apartments, a newspaper, Summer camp, youth service organization, etc. — there’s no denying an era is ending for this beloved local landmark, once a pillar of the community. Thanks to Judy’s vibrant, slice-of-life pics from Redeemer’s history, we’ll always have a little something to remember its heyday by (NOTE: This slide was restored for EF Oktoberfest 2016).

Photos below from July 4, 1944  & 45.  Independence Day used to be a religious holiday in East Falls. Churches had a parade up Midvale and then dispersed to their churches for picnics. Typically, the members went from one church to another sharing the day. 

EastFallsLocal Redeemer from Judy email July 4 1944 independence day 2 FRAME

Looks like either drop the handkerchief or duck, duck goose being played in the lot where the school is looking at the end of rowhouse on Penn Street. Love the little guy tugging at his pants.

EastFallsLocal Redeemer from Judy email July 4 1944 independence day FRAME

The other photo is looking up the hill at the back of the odd numbered row houses and the even-numbered house just visible in the background. I actually knew a couple of these people and my son is related to one of those seated. I’m pretty sure it’s his grandmother — but they all look alike!

EastFallsLocal REdeemer 1945 slide pic

In the church, stored under the stage is an old wooden sliding board like the one at Smith Playground. We used to put it up on the Fourth of July for all the neighborhood. It took up most of the side yard now known as “greenspace.” I let Gary know about this. He had no idea what it was.

These photos below are from a summer festival in 2008. It was oppressively hot that day! When these photos were taken, the synod had already sued us (court papers dated June 2008). We were locked out in September 2009.

EastFallsLocal REdeemer summer 2008 festival collage

The festival featured some of the Keystone State Boys Choir during worship. After worship, a local rock band (Spoons of Naples) provided entertainment. That’s my boy, Natty Leach, on the left.

The Lutheran Synod characterized us as aging and racist. Neither charge is true as the photos reveal. Not all in the photo are members, of course. It was a festival, but a lot of them are!

EastFallsLocal REdeemer summer 2008 festival collage kids sign

My niece, Cheyenne, with two of our East African child members. Makatalili and Ellen.

Finding some shade behind the sign. The bishop couldn’t wait to tear down the sign. Her theory was that if you take the sign down for six months, no one will remember the church. Other bogus theories from the bishop: churches without parking lots cannot succeed. That leaves out most urban churches!

Going back farthest, two great images from 1925:

EastFallsLocal REdeemer 1925 images

As more churches close across America, communities lose trusted repositories of local history, families, and culture. Judy seeks to help fill the void with a new kind of ministry, adapting to the needs modern generations. She seeks to keep the spirit of Redeemer Lutheran Church alive in East Falls.

EastFallsLocal REdeemer collage memories

HOW PROPERTIES presents to Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustments Wednesday, May 18th at 2:00 pm, 1515 Arch Street, 18th Floor  (215-686-2429). Judy plans to be there, along with her supporters who seek to delay Gary’s zoning variance. Near neighbors have expressed interest in going, as well, but to help move Gary’s plans forward.

Should be interesting — from what we know of Judy, she’s certainly not afraid to tangle for what she believes in. See you there!

EastFallsLocal REdeemer collage building zoning notice

PS:  Read up on Redeemer’s planned renovations in our recap from earlier this month, including video and neighbor comments posted above.


  1. Good coverage!

    You might also point out that our membership included two retired ELCA pastors. It was not just I! We had knowledgable Lutherans in our membership, including about seven members who grew up in pastor’s families.

    The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (SEPA/ELCA) first attempt to change the locks was February 24, 2008.

    The synod council voted to close us in 2012. We were never informed. I learned this by googling Redeemer East Falls. The synod council minutes came up. That means we were an operating congregation even in their eyes from 2009 to 2012. We were denied all rights during this time.

    Bishops and synods don’t have constitutional authority to close churches without the involvement of the congregation. The synod will claim that they imposed synodical administration (under tweaked bylaws that are in opposition to the their articles of incorporation). We challenged the synodical administration, which we are allowed to do. The bishop (Claire Burkat) denied us this right for almost two years before allowing us to make a 10-minute presentation to the annual synod assembly in May 2009.

    That assembly never voted on our appeal.

    A different question was substituted—the right to take our property. Our appeal had not addressed the taking of our property since the articles of incorporation forbid it.

    Since we, as a member congregation, were denied representation at the 2009, 2010, 2011 and the 2012 annual synod assemblies—before there was a vote to close us—constitutional or not—decisions made at these assemblies are not binding under the operating Rules of Order. This includes any vote about Redeemer AND the reelection of the bishop!

    But rules ceased to matter long ago.

    The litigation involving Redeemer and the ELCA has wide-ranging impact on every congregation in Pennsylvania and perhaps the United States. The final court ruling states that if the law were applied our congregation’s claim has merit, but the courts have no jurisdiction to apply the law within the Church.

    This means every church volunteer board member is vulnerable. The rules we think we are operating under cannot be enforced. This becomes increasingly problematic as national churches and regional bodies struggle with funding. They want what congregations have—land and endowment funds.

    Two lawyers commented at the time: Wait until corporations start using this precedent to write bylaws in opposition to their founding articles. It has the potential to create chaos in corporate law.

  2. Preservation of historical buildings and parks is so important to our community and city. The church is such a beautiful building. I would support preserving the structure and turning it into something that serves the community. In my opinion we do not need more housing. Some of the new housing that has been built in the neighborhood is simply hideous. Example: town houses on Conrad St where East Falls Beverage use to be and townhouses across from Murphy’s’ that sit right by the train tracks. That area could have been a green space a community garden which it was some years ago. Sorry I was unable to attend meetings about this. I hope the church can be preserved.
    Beth Gross-Eskin

    • Hey, Beth! HOW Properties specializes in preserving historic structures so that bodes well, we think, for the church’s renovation into 9 rental units. Unfortunately, the time has passed to preserve the church as a community or religious space — ZBA approved variances yesterday, building can begin immediately. I do appreciate the desire to keep East Falls green, but the land sells fair & square. Agreed that it’ll be a good day, indeed, when a community garden’s value isn’t measured in dollars but in other things it gives the neighborhood: fresh air, produce, cooperation, exercise, nature, etc. Until that time, those of us who seek to defend East Falls from developers need to attend meetings & speak up before decisions go down.

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